identity, abuse, and cruciformity – does ‘being like Jesus’ mean staying with an abuser?

[“Cruciformity” – character shaped in the cruciform and self-giving pattern of Christ]

Two extremes exist today among those answering this question.  One extreme is this:  the biblical mandate to “turn the other cheek,” modeled in the humiliation of Jesus, requires those who are abusive relationships/marriages to stay the course, loving their spouse in a way that “denies self and takes up the Cross” for the sake of the other.  I’ve heard a pastor say this almost verbatim, and wanted to say, “Doesn’t being like Christ require YOU to step in and take the abuse for her?”  

sadA second extreme, however, runs away from the tension of cruciformity, finding a hundred different ways of avoiding the radical demands of the Gospel for one’s life and character.  The most extreme of these options is found in a feminist interpretation (“cruciformity is a uniquely masculine, even misogynistic reading likely injected by Paul”).  There are assumptions there that just don’t fit the data, and moreover, don’t allow the tension in Paul’s theology to be what it is. 

Both extremes are too simplistic and, in my estimation, represent extra-biblical agendas.  In fact, while the two extremes remain polarized and largely at war with one another, I’d like to offer an alternative.  These are thoughts-in-process, and I’m hopeful for feedback, pushback, and clarification from the readers.

First, I’d suggest that cruciformity is at the heart of Paul’s theology, as well as the identity of Jesus.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the energy behind it is found in the Trinity and its self-giving circle of love.  That said, I cannot call cruciform theology misogynistic.  Yet, at the same time, “using” it as a way of encouraging an abused woman (or man, for that matter, though I will stick with the most statistically significant gender) into a supposedly selfless act of staying in relational proximity to the abuser is, in my estimation, criminal.  Self-sacrifice is motivated by love, and an abused woman often has no category for “loving” her spouse selflessly.  In fact, she does so at great cost not only to herself and her own maturity.  And, she fails to hold her sinful spouse accountable for his abuse.  Apparent “selflessness,” in other words, may appear noble, but may not really be loving at all. 

Second, I’d suggest that Jesus (and Paul, for that matter) could live in a cruciform manner is because they had had a “self” to deny.  Let me explain.  It takes having a self first to lose a self.  The reason we celebrate the self-sacrifice of Paul, or Stephen, or some of the early church martyrs is because they a self (a sense of self-identity?, a “stable” self?) and chose to give it away.  Often times, abuse victims have no such life, and no sense of self.  In fact, many were erroneously taught and habituated into believing that they were worth crap, to be blunt.  This is a denial of human dignity, basic to all image-bearers (even if they are “totally depraved,” as a Calvinist would argue).  Remarkably, we hear instances of impoverished people who give up possessions more freely than the rich.  In my estimation, these are examples of people who, though economically poor, are spiritually rich.  But, abuse victims are, by and large, spiritually and emotionally impoverished, and need help from the powerful – those in a position to step in.  The abused have no “self” to give up, because it was absorbed and shattered by the abusive power of others in their lives.  Sanctification often becomes by stepping into the very first stages of identity-formation, requiring the church to take seriously a unique discipleship among those who are abused and powerless.  (This “discipleship,” sadly, often falls to professional counselors who lack theological/biblical trajectories.  And while professional counseling may be needed, the church ought not back away from its primary role in discipleship).      

Third, women who I have counseled need time and space to disconnect in order to reconnect.  Space does not permit elaboration on the virtues and vices of separation, but at least some level of separation is often needed for the abused to gain a sense of perspective and identity, and the abuser to be awakened to his own sin.  This can be a difficult process, and is often confusing for pastors.  As a pastor (and a licensed counselor with a PhD in Psychology), I empathize.  I’ve dealt with counselors whose primarily answer is, “Get the hell out of there” with no larger context for growth, change, and reconciliation.  A significant part of my New Exodus Model of Soul Care is devoted to this shortsighted perspective.  But again, time doesn’t allow elaboration.  It’s important, most of all, to note the significance of a process which affirms the evil of abuse to the victim, shows protection and care, affirms her dignity (without minimizing her own sinful contributions), and instills a vision for life as God intends for it to be lived.  This is hard, and I can attest to the fact that it takes time, time that some pastors cannot handle because they are anxious to see “resolution,” “forgiveness,” and “reconciliation.”  I assure you…I want those things too…but patience is needed.

Fourth, a decision to stay in relationship with an abuser requires significant spiritual/emotional strength.  Some of my clients have chosen to stay.  They have an internal strength and sense of identity (rooted deeply in Christ, not in the devastating “arrows to the heart” from the abuser).  This choice often comes after significant self-assessment in relationship with wise counselors and pastors.  It also comes in the context of community looking in on her well-being.  When or why she should stay is not answered by filling out a checklist, but by working through some pretty heavy questions and with very wise counsel.  

Fifth, staying makes her no more heroic than the women who needs to leave.  One of the tenets of a New Exodus Model of Soul Care is that God meets us at our various developmental stages, not giving us more than we can handle.  Thus, his patience with Israel when they complained shortly after leaving Egypt is developmentally appropriate, while at the same time His impatience and anger with Israel’s complaint much later (post-Sinai) is also appropriate, and not at all a mark of inconsistency in His character.  If anything, it’s a testament to His wise parenting.  What is heroic is when a woman makes a difficult choice, taking the road-less-traveled at great cost to herself.  And, very often, a woman who leaves an abusive man does so at great cost to herself, and finds that spiritual and emotional maturity is propelled from that choice.    

Sixth, a trajectory that does not aim for forgiveness and reconciliation is not biblical.  I’ve lectured on this a lot in recent years, because my sense is that many counselors take their clients to a fuller, richer sense of self, and leave them there.  Doing this puts the client in peril.  In fact, in my experience, it often unleashes an angry man-hating narcissist into the world.  That’s blunt, but its as honest as I can be.  I’ve worked with literally dozens of abused woman, and if I’ve learned anything it is that I do my clients no favors by “terminating” with them too early.  In fact, when they feel like they are ready to go, I’ve been known to say, “No, the really tough stuff starts now.”  This is because I’m convinced that maturity requires discerning the various stages of or manifestations of cruciformity for the person.  Again, it requires too much to write further on this, but begs questions:  What, then, does she do with her ‘righteous’ anger?  How does she move through anger to sadness?  How/when should she re-engage her abuser?  What is a vision for her further growth and maturity?  Again, many churches I have consulted with have few answers to these questions.  There must be a long-term vision that moves toward deeper forms of cruciform living.    

Seventh (and last, for now), the church must act more like Christ.  I’m grieved that when I see pastors who are unwilling to take the hard steps of intervening in abusive situations, but who (from a distance) throw condemning grenades into an already difficult situation (ie. “she’s in sin if she leaves”).  I don’t care if he’s an elder.  I don’t care if he tithes more than anyone.  You are called to be Jesus, and to lay down your life for the weak, helpless, and powerless among you.  I see pastors siding with the powerful over and over again.  I am so grateful, in this respect, to be in a new place and at a new church, distanced from what seemed to me to be an epidemic in the South.  It’s good to see the church being the church here.  I’m being healed, myself, of the sin of cynicism and resignation which was born out of countless examples of pastoral complacency, ignorance, and fearfulness.  Our vocational identity, as pastors, needs to be rooted in the cruciform life of Christ.  That requires us look beyond the behavior (as the Pharisees failed to do), and to have a vision for the widow, the orphan, the prostitute, the abused, the child – those who, by definition, are stripped or impoverished or disengaged from of a sense of identity.  We, the church, intervene, even if it’s dangerous, to rescue, protect, love, support, challenge, or lift up.  My sense is that the Christian church is a laughing-stock to many precisely because we’ve failed in this.  We would do well to look at the example of the early church that practiced this in a way that puts the most powerful and wealthy church in all of history to shame.

These seven thoughts are preliminary, and I invite your thoughts as I look to define these things more clearly, and publish them in time.  I wish I could be more precise.  I would caution those who want clear examples, noting that situations differ and motives are harder to discern.  It’s because of this that I believe we default to more simplistic behavioral categories which relieve the tension and messiness.  Yet, as pastors, if our desire is to avoid tension and messiness, we’re in the wrong vocation.

20 comments

  1. I really love this! So many times I have been frustrated with the tension in abuse and marriage (or even other relationships) and in good counsel for those people. I especially liked how identity plays a part in the decision. Thanks Chuck.

  2. Excellent thoughts. I want to respond to a small piece of what you said…

    >> Self-sacrifice is motivated by love, and an abused woman
    >> often has no category for “loving” her spouse selflessly. In fact, she
    >> does so at great cost not only to herself and her own maturity. And,
    >> she fails to hold her sinful spouse accountable for his abuse. Apparent
    >> “selflessness,” in other words, may appear noble, but may not really be
    >> loving at all.

    >> But, abuse victims are, by and large, spiritually and emotionally
    >> impoverished, and need help from the powerful – those in a position to
    >> step in.

    I completely agree with these statements. When I was in law school I did a research project on law enforcement reaction to domestic abuse. I studied two adjacent counties (the city I lived in was situated in both counties) and found two very different responses by prosecutors in cases where the victim, often as a result of the cycle of violence, is no longer cooperative with the prosecution of the abuser’s acts. In one county, the DA’s office felt that they needed to respect the wishes of the victim. By continuing to prosecute, they argued, you were only adding to the perception of victimization by the victim–in essence taking away what little control they may have over the situation. In the other county, the DA’s office felt that what we know of the cycle of violence meant that they needed to do all they could to continue to prosecute as a way of showing victims that even if they were going to accept violence in their homes, there was no way the powers that be would, and that they would still be there when the cycle of violence inevitably spins back around.

    My paper argued for the latter position as the proper and more effective response. (Someone must have agreed–I won an award for the paper.) I still hold to that position in my work. And I think this carries over to the church. People in power–elders, pastors, Christian counselors, etc., need to step in to stop the cycle of violence, even when doing so may be unwanted by the victim or cause an accusation of paternalism. Only by stepping in can that cycle end. Obviously, how that stepping in happens must be considered on a
    case-by-case basis–there is no one-size fits all solution. But at the very least, victims (known and unknown) must be aware that the church takes domestic violence very seriously and will step in to try to prevent it. Some of that stepping in will involve letting victims know that just putting up with the violence is NOT the same as turning the other cheek, and that by protecting the abuser and allowing the violence to continue, they may actually be acting in a way that is not as loving as confronting the violence would be.

    Back to reviewing liquor licenses, something unfortunately not at all far removed from this discussion…

  3. Thanks Chuck for the thought provoking piece. It provoked some thought:

    1. the quality of Jesus’ sacrifice as opposed to a battered spouse. In the trial narratives Jesus continually maintains that his path to the cross is one of complete freedom. He reminds Pilate that he did this willingly in complete freedom. A legion of angels would dispel the pretense of Roman power.

    Jesus also makes his decision from perfect mental and emotional freedom. He did not suffer from the distortions we do in the context of an abusive relationship or an abuse history. I liked how in your piece you elucidate that the context distorts and so the abused is not truly free and therefore the choice to stay is not comparable to Jesus’ choice.

    Jesus’ decision to go to the cross was also productive for all parties. Jesus is glorified (John) and exalted (Phil 2) and we are rescued. That’s a pretty high standard.

    2. I think it’s also important to remember that involuntary suffering can also be transformed into cruciform suffering through Jesus. African American slaves had little hope for freedom from their bondage yet they found a degree of redemptive freedom through Jesus in this way. I think this is a way to understand some of Paul’s admonitions to slaves to obey their masters. This may not be germane to the context you are talking about where there are counseling and legal options for American victims of domestic violence, yet historically and throughout the world there have been and are many who suffer in bondage who yet look to Jesus for redemption even if they might not have historical freedom from bondage in the near term. Jesus can make slaves free while they are still slaves. pvk

  4. Thanks for this Chuck. Paul linked me to it.
    What I hear you describing is cruciform behaviour driven by a loss of self, verses that driven by a solid sense of self. It strikes me they might look identical to the observer.
    What you write has me wondering how you would characterize the sense of self of the abuser. I would timidly venture there is a mirroring or matching lack of sense of self in that person.
    I’ve been helped in understanding this by Bud Harris’s concept of “Sacred Selfishness.” He writes “There are two kinds of selfishness in life. One is sickly, and we often refer to it as egotism or individualism. Its practitioners are emotionally hungry for power, starved for affirmation, and driven to use and impose on us for self-serving ends.” He continues “Sacred Selfishness” is the second kind of selfishness. It means making the commitment to value ourselves and our lives enough to pursue the decision to become people of substance” or character.
    http://budharris.com/selfishness.html

    What I can’t quite get into succinct thoughts in my head, let alone on paper, is what in Jesus brings substance enough to my character that I can practice sacred selfishness in a cruciform manner and not feel like I’m being selfish. I find some of my old thinking on selfishness is pretty well part of my mental DNA.
    Pete

  5. I discovered this blog in a wandering-path-way after reading an article on cruciformity over at Sibboleth. I appreciated the things that article made me think about, but the big question hovering at the back of my mind was exactly the one you are addressing here. Then I clicked on an article called “Neurosis and Theosis” which sounded right down my alley. And lo and behold, I see your picture, so I click over here and browse around, only to discover your article addressing the tensions of cruciformity.

    I am really thankful for how your way of thinking shaped my own exit from abuse and walk forward. Being separated and divorce actually is still not a total exit since he continues to find some terrible ways to continue the abuse and mind games, through the children, but I have been so thankful lately that you and others helped me find a way to walk through it that did not lean on the “strength” of anger and hatred, even while making a lot of space for the honest anger and sadness through lamenting the horrors that are.

    This article reminded me of something I’ve reread several times in a chapter by John Piper on the life of John Bunyan. While Bunyan was suffering in prison and expounding on the joys and spiritual blessings being found while he suffered, some of his parishioners asked then if it could be right to flee, since suffering obviously was something so used of God. He responds how it can be right BOTH to stay and suffer or flee, as long as either way one is still resting and trusting in the Lord and able to accept the result as from the Lord and under His sovereignty if, e.g., he is caught even after fleeing.

    I appreciate the things you make me think about here and in your other posts. It’s good to pick up on some updates on your family through your posts. You are missed here in Orlando, but it is exciting to hear the things the Lord is stirring in your thinking and work there.

  6. You’ve provided a wonderful model for thinking through tough issues blically. I don’t know that I’ve seen this before. Although I’ll admit I’ve kept a far distance from much of what passes for biblical counseling – for some of the very reasons you enumerate.

    Your point on how the church must act more like Christ is a challenge I will be thinking about. Thanks for an excellent post.

  7. Thanks, Chuck!
    I got your post from Sibboleth and wanted to say that I think that you are right on target. Here are some of my thoughts as I posted on Sibboleth-Cruciform and abuse.

    Even when God acted in the historic period of Israel’s exiles, God still provided deliverance in the midst of bondage. God Himself provided a sacred place-sanctuary.
    In Ezekiel, God is saying that he would be a “little sanctuary”. The church, beginning with church leaders are to be the sanctuary of deliverance for those who are in the midst of abuse.

    Even Stephen in the midst of confrontation saw the fullness of the Lord’s glory. Then in the midst of his abuse he called on God (and this is moments after seeing the Lord in His glory). God’s presence of comfort and hope was clearly available so much so that Stephen had conformed to the “cross-shaped narrative” as evidence by his response. He shared the same perspective as Jesus being executed on the cross-submission of his spirit to God and offering forgiveness for the abusers. The cruciformed church is to be the presence of physical and spiritual deliverance, comfort, and hope to those being abused.

    Even Paul, once an abuser transformed into seeing God’s economy as truth. His life now Christ crucified (a shift of power allegiance happened). What has always got me was his ability to persevere, praise-rejoice in his sufferings, and abuses. Yet, the mysterious secret to this cruciform life was that Paul trusted in Christ. He lived in and trusted that “little sanctuary” that provided freedom and release from the abusers.

    Do you know who and what that “little sanctuary” was? That “little sanctuary” was the churches and Paul’s fellow workers; they provided the deliverance, comfort, hope, and other needs. God is present and desires deliverance and not only desires but acts for the abused. God’s action is repeatedly stressed in the exilic narratives, “I will.” Jesus too expresses this action of willingness in dialogue while conforming disciples, healing, death and resurrection and more.

    Thanks again for your wonderful post!!

  8. Though I agree with what you say about the need to *have* a sense of self before one can give that self *away*, I think this is a point that is hard to explain or justify. To those looking for scriptural backing for such an idea (and to the little Bible thumper in my head who still wonders if he buys any of this counseling crap), what do you say? …It can sound an awful lot like a justification for arguing the exact opposite of what Jesus meant when he called us to sacrifice…

    1. Tim,

      Good thought. It’s a big subject to tackle in a short response, but I suspect that one angle might be through the notion of full humanity. Jesus, of course, was (is!) the most fully human being to walk the earth. In contrast, the curse of Adam is a shattered image, a divided heart, de-humanizing living – what I would suggest indicates something less than “self” (split, traumatized, hidden, etc.) Further, Brueggemann argues that loving one’s neighbor as oneself also hints at a positive notion of self. Of course, part of our confusion is that this notion of self has been so muddled in pop-psychology. But I think this is an idea worth fleshing out. I’d love to hear if someone has written on it.

  9. As a victim of abuse, I have often felt shamed by the church. As my own emotions reeled like the victims of Haiti, rarely have I received a sense of protection or affirmation of my dignity.
    Never have I been offered discipleship to get a sense of purpose or vision for my life as God intended.
    Never have I heard a sermon on the topic of domestic violence.
    Never has the evil of abuse been affirmed by a pastor.
    Based on my experience, by not helping the victims of abuse, the church sides with the perpetrator.

    I left my home because I was afraid. At the moment, I wrestle with a difficult choice–return to my home and live with the reality of domestic violence or live with the consequences of the sin of divorce. The desire of my heart is to please God.

    Thanks, Chuck, for your timely article.

  10. Thanks for this post, although it is disheartening to read your account of what sounds like many Pastors who are adding to the burdens that the abused already face. It is unfathomable to me, that this kind of abuse is still so prevalent in the churchhttp://outlandish-lee.blogspot.com/

  11. Your remarks about the prevelance of this mind set in the South are true I live in the south and have attended many churches in the south over the years and am a survivor of domestic abuse, indeed the inability of of many pastoral staff (and congregations, due to a lack of leading by example)to be rooted in the cruciform life of Christ is as you said rooted in “complacency, ignorance and fearfulness” . Thank you for your article and for the time, education, wisdom and “patience” you expend on counceling the abused and for being cruciformed enough to speak the truth and encourage others into a life of cruciformed living.
    MG

  12. Dear Chuck – thank you for your thoughtful article – it has been helpful for me as i am wrestling with the issue of submission and why it gets so abused in the church – your thoughts really have resignation and have been helpful to heal some cynicism in my own heart as well as give words to the trajectory that God would desire – Thanks for laboring so heard to speak so well –

  13. thank you for this article! I struggled with these very things, making the difficult decision to leave an abusive husband. This resulted in my ostracization from the church – the only people I really had any dealings with- and left me very lonely and confused,  but as I spent more time in the Word, and reached out to others, I became stronger in my faith than I have ever been, knowing both what I did wrong, and what was not mine to bear. I learned just how much Jesus loves me, and that I am never alone.  Thanks for putting our struggle in a way that is both educational and comforting!

  14. Chuck… Reread this post this morning. Thank you for helping me frame some thoughts and prayers as I consider my fight with alcoholism and the wreakage on my sweet ex-wife Stephanie. Keep up the good work Chuck.

  15. I am a formerly abusive man. I abused my wife psychologically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and sexually. She put up with it for ten years — 2 1/2 of which was in marriage. She is gone now, and I have since become a Christian. Also, I grew up in church in the south, so I can certainly understand about what Dr. De Groat is talking. Sadly, I even counted on such a culture not to confront me with my heinous and odious sins. My hope for the future is that I will be able to help protect women from monsters like the one I was. Further, I equally hope that I will be able to help those monsters see themselves for what they truly are; however, I want them to come to know Christ so that they can also see themselves for what they were always meant to be. I am nowhere near perfect. However, I am, by the gracious Spirit of God, being sanctified into the likeness of the One which every woman and man needs — no matter where they’ve been, no matter what they’ve done.

  16. I with the “get the hell out of there.”  It saved my and my children’s lives.  I was shunned for fleeing for my life, and I’m not a christian anymore.  I was looking for another resource when I stumbled about this nonsense as a ‘grey continuum’.  Overall, I don’t believe in absurd and cruel dialecticals (not at all???), and I don’t see so much distinct black and white on issues.  But in cases of abuse, “get the hell out of there” is the only message that will teach everyone that abuse is real; that women and children need to be protected, and that anything short of that message is death.

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